Trump justifies his embrace of Saudi leader by endorsing the bloody U.S.-supported war in Yemen


After the most inane opening of any official White House statement ever – “America First! The world is a very dangerous place!” – the most urgent thing Donald Trump had to say today about his relationship with Saudi Arabia is that the horrific Saudi-led war in Yemen is Iran’s fault.

Never mind that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been definitively identified by the CIA as the man who ordered the grotesque premeditated ambush assassination of U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi — “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”

Instead, Trump gave a kindergarten-level intro to imaginary geopolitics in which the Saudis are the victims and the U.S. must stick by their side.

“The country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen,” the statement indicated, adopting the Saudis’ specious excuse for continuing the U.S.-backed bombing of civilian targets that has already turned Yemen into a hellish landscape of carnage and famine.

Trump then adopted Saudi talking points that I suspect even the Saudis can no longer utter with straight faces.

“Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave,” Trump wrote. “They would immediately provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance.”

The reality is that the Saudi-led coalition has taken sides in what is a complex and confusing civil war in Yemen, where Iran is mostly a bogeyman. Neither Trump nor Obama before him have ever set forth an intelligible reason for the U.S. to be providing military support for the bombings, which it has been doing in the form of aerial refueling and help with intelligence and targeting. In the words of Sen. Chris Murphy, that support has put “an American imprint on every single civilian death inside Yemen”.

As far as I can tell, the first time Trump even addressed U.S. support for the war in Yemen was on Sunday, on Fox News.

Asked his view on ending U.S. involvement, Trump didn’t exactly say: “Well I want to see Yemen in but it takes two to tango. Iran has to end it also,” he said. “And Iran is a different country than it was when I took over, it’s far weakened because of what I did with the Iran — so-called Iran deal, Iran nuclear deal, which was one of the great rip-offs of all time. But I want Saudi to stop but I want Iran to stop also.”

I’ve been writing recently about Trump’s use of language. What’s striking about his written statement today was how similar it was to his unscripted ramblings. The official Saudi statement was vapid, credulous, combative and childish in the extreme — featuring eight exclamation points! All of its assertions conveying Saudi views were definitive; all those reflecting the views of the U.S. intelligence community were hedged and caveated.

It will almost inevitably backfire, and further links the effort to end support for the Saudi bombing in Yemen to the Kashoggi murder, strengthening that case considerably.

As I wrote two months ago, when a Democratic House was only a theoretical possibility, members of Congress from both parties had already joined together in significant numbers to balk at the U.S. military’s complicity in the Saudi bombings. Now, definitive action in the House is inevitable, and possibly in the Senate as well.

The biggest question may be what the legislation says, specifically. Opponents of the Yemen war were rallying around House Congressional Resolution 138, authored by California congressman Ro Khanna. But the ACLU on Tuesday issued a strong call to abandon it — on account of multiple legalistic loopholes — and instead take up more ironclad legislation in January.

National security expert William Hartung had an important article on CNN today. He noted that the Trump administration recently called for a ceasefire and announced its decision to stop refueling Saudi aircraft involved in the conflict. But Hartung doubted the effect of either move.

Only Congress can make it stop, he wrote. “The sooner that happens, the better it will be, for the people of Yemen and the security of the United States and the region.”

With Trump as commander in chief, concern about unlawful orders grows in the military

Marine looking through binoculars (Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alexander Sturdivant)

Members of the armed forces take an oath to obey the orders of the President of the United States and their commanding officers, as required by the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

There’s only one exception in that code:  If the order is unlawful. Service members are taught that if they are ordered to do something illegal or immoral – such as a war crime – they are obligated to refuse.

So soldiers typically ask themselves questions like: What would I have done if my commander ordered me to destroy an entire Vietnamese village?

With Donald Trump as their commander in chief, however, the question of what to do if given an unlawful order has become less hypothetical, says Pauline M. Shanks Kaurin, who teaches ethics at the U.S. Naval War College. (She spoke to me in an individual capacity).

“It’s not an academic question anymore,” she said. “For many people, it feels more present. It’s in the realm of possible in the military – much more than it has been.”

Nothing Trump has done – even sending troops to the southern border at Thanksgiving for political, rather than military reasons – has risen close to that level, she said.

“Let’s say you think it’s a political stunt,” she said. “That doesn’t rise to the level of disobeying a command because it’s illegal or immoral. The disobedience threshold is very high for the military – for good reason.”

(There are, of course, ways of resisting short of refusing an order.)

But if Trump were to follow through on his threat to order soldiers to use lethal force on civilians – a threat he quickly withdrew – who knows what might have happened?

“I will say that talking to my friends and students and colleagues in the military, people are thinking about this in more practical terms,” Shanks Kaurin said. “In other words, ‘If I get that order, what am I gong to do?'”

How scared should we all be about Donald Trump’s relationship with the military? That’s a question I’m posing to experts in the wake of my Nov. 19 post that listed several reasons for concern. Shanks Kaurin was the first. She wrote a fascinating article in Just Security last year about the growing civilian/military cultural divide.

She told me today that some service members see Trump as outside the normal spectrum of presidents. “They don’t see Trump as a normal commander in chief,” she said.

“But part of military professionalism is that you serve as an agent of the state and you serve whoever the civilian leaders are that represent that state,” she said.

That hasn’t changed dramatically – at least not yet – she said.

What has changed, however, is the willingness of retired service members, particularly flag and general officers, to criticize Trump’s conduct as commander in chief.

“I think for some people, they think Trump is in a different category – that think the normal rules about not being political or not being partisan don’t apply,” she said.

Case in point, the op-ed that Retired Adm. William H. McRaven wrote in August calling Trump a terrible disappointment. Trump fired back with some ridiculous potshots. Retired Gen. Mark Hertling then defended McRaven against Trump’s “jackassery.” Retired Gen. Wesley Clark just wrote that “Trump’s actions and behavior have led service members and veterans to question whether he really understands who a commander in chief is, or what he does.”

So, Shanks Kaurin said, “if you think that, does that change how you think the military should act?”

Shanks Kaurin said her concerns about Trump and the military have actually ebbed since he became president. “I think I was more worried during the election, when Trump was saying, ‘Of course, they’ll waterboard if I tell them to,’ and the military was saying “Oh no, we won’t.”

But she said, “The way he talks – ‘my military‘ — that’s odd relative to how other commander in chiefs talk about that.

“He struggles with what it means to be commander in chief.”

See previous posts about Trump and the military. Consider making a donation to White House Watch.

Trump’s relationship with the military is dangerously bizarre

A mortar live fire training exercise in Qatar, Nov. 11, 2018. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Jovi Prevot)

Donald Trump’s mockery of retired Adm. William H. McRaven, who masterminded the capture of Osama bin Laden, is only the latest of many disturbing events and trends in a relationship between Trump and the military that is unprecedented, complicated, sometime contradictory – and at this point, cause for serious concern.

McRaven, arguably one of the most revered military officers of the moment, wrote in August about his terrible disappointment that Trump was unable to “rise to the occasion and become the leader this great nation needs,” and had, instead, “embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.”

Trump fired back over the weekend by deriding McRaven as a “Hillary Clinton fan” and making the absurd claim that McRaven should have apprehended Osama bin Laden faster. (Trump could reasonably have criticized the CIA for that, but McRaven was waiting for them.)

As a single data point, it’s a troubling indicator of how Trump’s ostensible respect for military service and service members carries essentially no weight relative to his obsession with political loyalty.

But when it comes to Trump’s overall dealings with the military, it is one of many indicators, all of them flashing red.

Trump uses the military for political purposes, but otherwise cedes control to the generals – undermining two of the most important safeguards of democracy: the military’s detachment from politics; and civilian control of the military.

As commander-in-chief he is both overconfident and ignorant. He is worshipful of the military in general but unfeeling about its individual sacrifices. He surrounds himself with generals, but is threatened by heroes.

Overall, he is putting extraordinary tension on a relationship that is literally life or death for the military community – a community that is already isolated from the civilian population, operates under its own rules, and is now possibly becoming increasingly contemptuous and skeptical of the president.

Consider these elements of that relationship:

  • Trump is using troops for overtly political purposes. Before the midterm elections (and Thanksgiving), Trump sent thousands of active-duty personnel to the southern border to counter a non-existent threat from a migrant caravan hundreds of miles from the border. The only and obvious goal was to bolster his campaign of fear-mongering about invading immigrants to motivate low-information voters.
  • He also urged those troops to violate domestic and international law by using lethal force on civilians. The political use of troops on domestic soil with orders to ignore human rights is a hallmark of authoritarian dictatorships, not democracies.
  • He has de facto relinquished civilian control of the military, turning over virtually all decision-making to the Pentagon, which he appointed a general to run. Civilian control requires personal engagement by a president who has some knowledge of military issues. Trump feels in control, but has no idea what he’s talking about. Consider these two recent New York Times articles. From Sept. 15: “In the second year of his presidency, Mr. Trump has largely tuned out his national security aides as he feels more confident as commander in chief, the officials said.” And from Nov. 16: “top Defense Department officials say that Mr. Trump has not fully grasped the role of the troops he commands, nor the responsibility that he has to lead them and protect them from politics.” His attitude is driving Defense Department civilians out the door.
  • He says he wants the U.S. out of Afghanistan and Iraq, but isn’t actually doing anything about it. He is neither returning the troops, nor supporting them. He’s not defining their missions, or insisting that they be defined. He hasn’t visited troops deployed around the world, instead leaving them hanging not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Syria, Yemen, Nigeria and elsewhere. [Update: A “former senior White House official” tells the Washington Post: “He’s never been interested in going. He’s afraid of those situations. He’s afraid people want to kill him.”]
  • He treats the military like his personal fiefdom. He repeatedly refers to “my military,” and “my generals.” He loves surrounding himself with military pomp and generals who flatter him. He treats appearances before military audiences – historically no place for politics or preening — like Trump rallies. “You liked me and I liked you,” he said at MacDill Air Force, discussing the election. He told troops that previous presidents “weren’t letting you win before.”
  • He gives lip service to respect for the military, but shows none in his actions. Trump repeatedly expresses “eternal gratitude” to service members, veterans and military families, and campaigns on strengthening the military and supporting veterans. But when it comes to honoring them, his personal comfort appears to be a higher priority. He failed to join other world leaders who attended a Nov. 10 ceremony outside Paris at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, the burial ground for more than 2,000 U.S. dead in World War I, because of rain. Then he skipped the wreath-laying ceremony on Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery, preferring to stay home.
  • He seems unable to acknowledge the possibility of genuine heroism. He cares more about who is for him and who is against him. He insults military heroes who challenge him, and baselessly questions their heroism. His unsubstantiated comments about McRaven were nothing compared to his breath-taking attacks on the late Sen. John McCain, a war hero by any definition, who endured years of body-shattering torture during the Vietnam War after his plane was shot down. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump famously said of McCain, a frequent critic. “I like people who weren’t captured.”
  • He appears to lack empathy for those who have made a real sacrifice. After Khzir Khan, whose son was killed in Iraq, publicly lectured Trump about the Constitution and his unfamiliarity with sacrifice, Trump attacked the Khan family and insisted that he had “made a lot of sacrifices” by working “very, very hard.” He reportedly told one soldier’s widow on the phone that her husband “must’ve known what he signed up for,” and forgot the solider’s name. He then falsely asserted that Barack Obama didn’t make such calls. He promised one grieving military father $25,000, but didn’t deliver until months later, after a Washington Post story.
  • At the same time, in a society with a dramatic and troubling cultural divide between civilian and military communities, Trump’s behavior is giving the military grounds to feel morally superior. A recent Military Times poll found that Trump’s approval rating among active-duty military has slipped, “leaving today’s troops evenly split over whether they’re happy with the commander in chief’s job performance.” Most officers now disapprove.

So what should we make of these data points? How unstable is the situation? And what’s next?

One thing I want to discuss in the coming days: There is a third party in this relationship. It’s called Congress. And while Congress has basically given the president military carte blanche since 9/11, perhaps the alarming state of affairs outlined above – with, never forget, Trump’s finger on the nuclear button – requires a reassertion of Congress’s power to make and end war.

A guided tour of Donald Trump’s brain

When Donald Trump speaks extemporaneously, his thoughts come out in a mad tangle of words and sentence fragments, with simple phrases constantly repeated and more complicated ones abandoned mid-way. He almost always returns to the topic of himself, his greatness, his victimhood, and his election victory over Hillary Clinton.

It’s not normal.

It also tells you a lot about Trump’s internal dramas.

“When language is disconnected from meaning, it serves other psychological functions,” writes Justin Frank, an eminent Washington psychoanalyst and author who has made a side business of putting presidents on the metaphorical couch (first Bush, then Obama, and now Trump).

“Behind the tortured syntax,” Frank writes, “are symptoms of several worrisome disorders.”

In his new book, Trump on the Couch, Frank explains:

It’s as though Trump actually interrupts his own thinking with a new thought or association that only he can interpret. He circles around his original idea… a pattern of speech characterized by oblique, digressive, or irrelevant replies to a question. This is sometimes considered a thought disorder, while other mental health professionals see it as indicative of the manic phase of bipolar illness, or even the result of a dependency on amphetamines.

Frank, not surprisingly, begins his book with a deep dive into everything ever written about Trump’s childhood — and finds that his mother was barely there, both in his early life and in the public record. His analysis:

Donald Trump at some point learned that his mother was emotionally unavailable and that his father was absent and critical; combined with his own limited impulse control at school, which interfered with his traditional learning, these factors would contribute to a sense of despair over not getting enough warmth and meaningful nourishment from his earliest caretakers. This despair, in turn, would lead to narcissism, as a defense against shame and criticism, as well as against the need for any introspection that would cause him to face his selfish or hurtful behavior.

In some ways, Frank writes, Trump is still stuck there.

The man we now see before us is an adult with an infantilized worldview: a frightened child who is hungry – for power, for fast food, for admiration, for money, for loyalty. He surveys the world around him with uncanny radar for any aspersion, seeing everything but understanding nothing. I think Trump never got over his hurt and rage at not having had a deep preverbal bond with his mother, and the confidence-building joys that warmth, tenderness, touch, scent or smiles might bring. He has been angry and determined to get his due ever since, spending his life trying to reach his idealized mother.

The symptoms of Trump’s narcissism include “self-centered focus … indifference to others, difficulty imagining the consequences of one’s actions, and shameless bragging.” Trump also rejects the rules and regulations that apply to other people, because he sees himself as immune.

And perhaps most recognizably, his narcissism makes him incapable of empathy:

When a person is as invested in the illusion of his omnipotence as Trump, the capacity to identify with weakness or vulnerability – a requisite for empathy – is too threatening to the delicate balance by which the illusion of omnipotence is maintained.

Why is he so divisive? Because he’s projecting his internal self-destructive feelings. He “must externalize this deep endless conflict, causing unease and ultimately division among others.” (See my November 8 post, It’s time to start ignoring what Trump says – as much as possible.)

What drives his virulent racism and his obvious misogyny?

When… fears and doubts make the individual feel insecure, and he can project his self-doubts and self-hatred onto a group of others, his insecurity is assuaged, he feels more secure by remaining loyal to his own particular group, and hating and fearing others.

That’s doubly the case with women, where Trump exhibits “a defensive means of coping with anxiety stemming from a deep fear of the opposite sex.”

Frank concludes by diagnosing Trump as having an untreated language-processing disorder:

It is my opinion that Donald Trump likely suffers from a subtype of dyslexia – a neuropsychological condition that was likely present and undetected since early childhood. It is a subtle language-processing disorder that affects emotional, cognitive, and social development.

Specifically, it leads to difficulties in understanding what someone else is saying, and in processing experiences.

Children with language processing disorders require attentive parenting to help them manage. Several of Donald Trump’s familiar adult personality traits—including his trademark volatility, lack of impulse control, and insistence that he knows better than anyone else – evoke the recognizable hallmarks of an undetected childhood learning disability.

Now, you may not buy everything Frank is selling, but I think it helps explain a lot about our very abnormal president.

Don’t believe me? Go read, as simply one example, Trump’s November 9 remarks before getting on Marine One – a not terribly atypical 23 minutes of hostility, defensiveness, self-pity, self-aggrandizement, and incoherence. Then tell me Frank’s not onto something.